ATree for my Future Ruidoso, New Mexico home

Land near the author’s Ruidoso property Photo by Greg Holt
Land near the author's Ruidoso property

The little ponderosa pine was still standing straight even after half an hour of continuous digging around the roots. Sweat ran down my neck and dripped into my eyes. The shovel bounced and skidded on the circular trench I’d excavated around the tree and I noticed that I had begun to grunt comically with each stab of the blade into the compacted brown dirt and rock. I wasn’t used to the altitude and I was breathing hard. Some roots were severed and I scooped dirt from around the trench hoping to maintain a root ball with some of the dry soil in it before digging under the tree’s tap root at the center.

The lady at the Forest Service office in Ruidoso said I could take a tree up to ten feet tall, so that’s what I was determined to do. Although tempted, I wasn’t going to give up on removing this tree and taking it to the land I’d bought a couple of years ago. The land where I’ll live someday.

After another fifteen minutes, the tree was laid on its side, and I dug underneath in slightly softer soil until I had about 18 inches of tap root. Finally, the tree was pulled from the hard spare ground. I carefully wrapped and tied the rootball in a cloth, packing clots of the dirt that had fallen away from the springy roots. Shouldering the tree, I carried it to the truck and laid it carefully inside with stiff arms and shaky hands. It was a good tiredness I felt, and I smiled while sipping a cold drink from the cooler and watching deep blue clouds crowd up over the high Sierra Blanca.

The air was cooling as indigo clouds rose in the West, crowding against and pushing over the mountain peaks 12,000 feet high. The massive thunderheads had crossed the burning desert of the Tularosa Basin with their promise of relief to meet the mountains and change to electric blue. I knew from the smell of the ground it was going to rain here high above the lava flows and white sands to the west and the scrub desert of the Pecos River valley to the east.

My future home is on land that is defined by its stark contrast from the surrounding deserts. It is a high altitude sanctuary for bear, elk, wild turkey, and mountain lions isolated in these mountains among stands of pine, aspen and juniper. It is a place where trout swim in shallow pools of clear running streams deepened by snowmelt in the spring. And a place where weary travelers like me might look towards their future in the thin air of this massive oasis, clean and quiet above empty flatlands.

Arriving on my land 20 minutes later, I carried the tree to a meadow near the road where there were juniper and piñon trees. I hoped someday to see a large ponderosa pine standing by a corral there. The rain came as expected as I dug away the yellow grass and excavated the place for the tree, which now lay living still near my feet. The upper two inches of the soil broke slowly to the shovel as I jumped with both feet onto the back of the blade. As the surface broke away to the softer soil beneath, I could see the hard brown ground streaked with white where the shovel cleaved it cleanly. I dug in a wide circle, struggling to get deeper. Large drops, hard and cool, smacked the back of my neck and my hat and, after a time, softened the ground slightly. It was a good time to plant.

I think a tree is like an investment in the future. In growth and permanence. This five acres is where I choose to live in my future. Where strong trees sink stiff roots into the hard ground at 7,000 feet. And the smell of juniper, piñon, and ponderosa pine scent the freshening air.

I thought my life had been like this. I’d been digging in hardscrabble dirt in ever widening circles, just like now. But I’d never invested much in one place. Never planted much. I’d just left much behind. Sometimes regretfully, and sometimes gladly. I grew up without a geographic connection to a place called home. My father traveled to find work. And I followed in his footsteps. A young life spent out on the road. Working in the Middle East, Asia, and South America. Traveling further still when I had the money to go. At 44, now I tell people I live in Houston, but I mostly live in hotels, running to catch the next plane to spend the weekend with my family there.

The circular hole was widening to accept my small, hard-gained tree, but it was not yet deep enough to hold the roots. I once equated the hard widening of my experiences with the purpose of my life. I believed wisdom is only gained by experience. But a wide excavation is not always a deep one. Not the kind where, given time, roots weave intricately into the earth, mining it for nourishment and growth. Finding illumination by standing still in the delicate certainty of being in the right place. I moved the shovel to the center and began to dig down.

There was a jagged double flash of lightning on the mountains above, electric white bolts against the dark blue of the storm. It was followed in a few seconds by a crack of thunder, then the spattering of the rain intensified. My wet shirt stuck to my back, the hole soaked up the water, and the moistened soil gave slightly, reluctantly to the shovel.

I paused for breath as the thunder rushed away down the valleys to the east where rolling hills lay expectantly. Behind the thunder there was stillness and a sense of waiting for the next wave of the storm to come down from the mountains above. But nothing came, just a lull in the air where I paused in my planting, a quiet spot under the sky on my land, and . . . expectation. A shaft of clear mountain light broke from the high clouds and illuminated the land where I stood in my tiny endeavor. I listened to the rain hitting the grass and the trees, and heard nothing else under the vast turbulent sky.

I looked uphill to where I will build my house someday, among large pines on a rocky outcropping. I hoped to see an elk or deer sheltering in the shadows, perhaps. But there was only the rain, quietly spattering the grass. I turned again to my digging.

Finally, I stood the tree in its new place, cut the wraps, and pushed the taproot into the ground of its new home. It will be fine to see the day when this ponderosa pine is tall enough to shelter me from the rain. I watched clear rain water beading and dripping from the light green needles on the branches, and silently wished my tree to grow well in its new place. I ran my hand softly along a stem of pine needles and felt their pliant response in my palm.